The Winter Olympics were officially opened on Friday and starting Monday the NHL takes a backseat to the biggest hockey tournament in the world. With that in mind we’ll preview that tournament and let you know who the medal contenders are and of course give a prediction.
The tournament consists of 12 teams split into three groups of four as follows:
Group A – Canada; United States; Switzerland; Norway
Group B – Russia; Czech Republic; Slovakia; Latvia
Group C – Sweden; Finland; Belarus; Germany
Each team in a given group plays the other teams once in a round-robin after which the top team from each group plus the fourth best team remaining are given byes into the quarter-finals while the remainder of the teams play a preliminary playoff round to determine who will play those four top teams. Conventional wisdom says that only six of these teams has any real shot at the podium namely Canada, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Russia, and the United States (perhaps Finland can slip in their too but it’s unlikely). In a tournament like this where every team qualifies for the elimination round it only takes one good game from a “lesser” team to upset the balance which is part of what makes this such an exciting event. With that said we’ll focus on the six, possibly seven, teams who are likely to be in serious medal contention starting with the hosting Canadians.
Considered by many to be the favorites to win the gold in Vancouver the Canadians have an incredibly talented roster (see http://proicehockey.about.com/od/olympichockey/a/2010-canada-roster.htm for full roster) and will be sound in every facet of the game. With a team this strong there is really no meaningful technical analysis that can be done to assess how they will finish. For Canada their biggest issues will be staying healthy and more importantly handling the pressure from the home crowd and media because they will be fully expected to win the gold medal with anything less being considered a failure. I think Canada’s greatest advantage will be their biggest downfall in that the crowd will be with them and that’s always helpful but if things do not go exactly as planned the pressure is going to mount big time and likely lead to Canada cracking under the pressure. It’s not so much because the players can’t handle the expectations as much as the pressure will cause them to play cautiously at times and the Russians (who I think will win the gold) will not have the same pressure on them so they can play loosely and seize the moments Canada plays tight resulting in disappointment for the whole country as they take the silver medal.
As for Russia they too have such a great roster together that technically there is little to speak of but there are some weaknesses for Russia. First off the biggest head-scratcher for them is that they have so many KHL players on their roster who were chosen over some NHL guys who could have (and perhaps should have) been on the team. Not only will these guys have a tough time adjusting to the North American ice size and style of play but in the opinion of most simply are not as talented as their NHL counterparts. Despite possibly diluting their talent pool the Russians still have a ton of fire power on their s squad (see http://www.2010tracker.com/2009/12/25/russia-announces-olympic-mens-hockey-team-roster/ for full roster) which can certainly outscore anyone at even strength but also results in them having an incredibly good power play unit. Teams will have to be concerned with every penalty they take because the Russians are likely to make you pay for almost any power play opportunity given to them. Their goal scoring prowess along with some great play in net will likely lead Russia to the Gold medal in this tournament. (It also doesn’t hurt that they have won two World Championships in a row).
The remainder of the top six are likely only going to be in contention for the Bronze medal (as long as the match-ups work out so that Russia and Canada end up meeting in the final).
Starting with team Sweden; although the Swedes are the defending Olympic champions their team looks good on paper but is an aged group of players and it is unlikely they will be able to keep pace with Canada or Russia but those teams aside the Swedes can make some hey against everyone else and that is why they are my favorite to take the Bronze.
Perhaps on the opposite end of the spectrum is team USA who has a very talented team but are very young (see http://proicehockey.about.com/od/olympichockey/a/2010-usa-roster.htm for full roster). It is unlikely that a team so lacking in experience can make a serious challenge for Silver or Gold but the strength of the rest of the field puts them squarely in the middle of the race for the Bronze medal. All team USA needs is to have their guys play reasonably well and have Ryan Miller steal a couple of games for them in the medal round to have a legitimate shot at the Bronze medal. Although the Bronze medal would be great for the Americans a fourth or fifth place finish would be quite an accomplishment for this upstart squad.
The Czech Republic has a very formidable roster assembled with a number of NHL players led by former NHLer and current KHL all-star Jaromir Jagr (see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/123948-2010-olympic-hockey-outlook-team-czech-republic for full roster). With the nice mix of young and veteran players the Czech Republic have to be considered co-favorites along with Sweden to grab the Bronze medal. The reason they are unlikely to make a push for the Gold is because they have a solid roster but no one really stands out on their team. Tomas Vokoun is probably their biggest star and while a goaltender can steal a game or two for you it would take that along with a star or two to carry the team any further than that and the Czechs simply do not have that.
The Slovakian team also has a fairly solid line-up just a step below the Czechs (see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/126346-2010-olympic-hockey-outlook-team-slovakia for full roster). And much like the Czechs the Slovakian squad lacks in big stars which hurts their chances to even compete for the Bronze medal. Their roster top to bottom is very solid but it’s pretty underwhelming with Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa being their best players but Chara is a defensemen and Hossa is certainly not the player today he was even three years ago. So while a Bronze medal is a reasonable goal for this team they will likely not even be able to get that far and should probably be ready to accept a preliminary round win and that’s about it.
Those are my predictions but in such a short tournament just about anything can happen so it will be very exciting no matter what. Enjoy the games everybody, we’ll see you next time.
Monday night the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres put on quite a show for the national TV audience which could have very well been an Eastern Conference Finals preview (depending upon seedings of course). The back and forth affair resulted in the Penguins overcoming a two goal second period deficit to defeat the Sabres 5-4. The game itself does not represent the bigger picture—i.e. why the Sabres and Penguins could be the best two (most complete) teams in the Eastern Conference.
For the Penguins it’s obvious why they are in such a good position. Pittsburgh has star power in Crosby and Malkin, a stellar up and coming star in Jordan Staal, savy veterans like Bill Guerin and Sergei Gonchar, an incredible netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury, and oh yeah they’ve been to the finals each of the last two years (did I mention they won the Stanley Cup last year?). The future for the Penguins seems to be going very much the same way as their recent past. The one major hurdle the Penguins have had to overcome is the injury bug and even that has worked out quite well for them. Despite losing a lot of players for long stretches they have been able to get a lot of production out of the guys they’ve had to call up from their AHL affiliate which is what has kept them afloat. The experience these guys are getting is invaluable and it only bodes well for the Penguins not only for the rest of the regular season but also in the playoffs should they need someone to step up in a tight spot. SO despite some rough patches the Penguins have gone through this year you still have to consider them one of the favorites two in the Eastern Conference again this year.
The Sabres do not have the big flashy stars like Pittsburgh but if you’re going to be a team that has arguably only one big star you want that start to be in net and that’s what they have in Ryan Miller. There is no doubt that Miller is one of the best netminders in not only the NHL but in the entire world. Miller’s career numbers speak for themselves but let us focus on this season alone. Miller has appeared in 47 games posting a 2.10 GAA (tops amongst goaltenders with at least 20 appearances), a .932 save percentage (best in the league) and five shutouts (second in the conference behind Marty Brodeur). Having a goaltender with numbers like that is an incredible launching point for any team, and although they do not have the star power in front of him one might like they have a bunch of players who as a group are incredibly consistent. Tim Connolly leads the team in points but he cannot carry the entire load himself and that’s when a plethora of other players pick up the slack. It seems like every night another person is stepping up to make a difference including but not limited to Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, and Jason Pominville; in fact some nights guys like Drew Stafford or Tim Kennedy will step up big when they need to. By not having a big time star on their team the Buffalo Sabres need a number of guys to step up in the clutch and that’s exactly what they have been able to do thus far this year. This will keep teams off balance because they cannot simply shut down one guy and know the game is theirs for the taking. This is especially important come playoff time and that’s why I think the Buffalo Sabres are in prime position (as long as they stay healthy) to make a serious run at the Conference Title.
A lot to cover so let’s get going.
1. The Philadelphia Flyers fired John Stevens after four seasons in which he had experienced quite a bit of success. In the 2006-2007 season the Flyers were awful and Stevens followed up that season by leading the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals where they were eliminated by the Penguins. Then of course last season Stevens had the Flyers in the playoffs again only to see their cross-state rivals once again eliminate them from the playoffs. Granted, there is nothing good about losing but there is really no shame in getting eliminated from the playoffs by one of the best and eventually the best team in the league. Thus far this season the Flyers have been mediocre but are hardly out of playoff contention currently sitting in 13th in the East but it games in hand on every team in front of it so if it wins those games in hand a playoff spot would belong to the Flyers. It remains to be seen what will happen with this early season coaching change—and I was forced to eat my words about midseason coaching changes last year by Pittsburgh who made a coaching change then went on to win the Stanley Cup—but I do not think it will make one bit of difference for Philadelphia. There is a fair amount of talent on the team and Ray Emery has been pretty good in goal but the Flyers problems focus more on trying to win a fight on skates rather than a hockey game. Physical play is in fact important and it’s a significant piece toward becoming a championship team but being undisciplined is a dagger in the heart of victory. They also have to play much better defense in front of whoever is in net because in their last nine games they have given up at least three goals on seven different occasions. No offense to new coach Peter Laviolette but the Flyers are who they are and so I don’t think the season will go any differently with him than it would have with Stevens. (please see the following link for my preseason thoughts on the Flyers http://sportsroids.com/2009/09/27/eastern-conference-outlook/)
2. As much as I enjoy watching Alex Ovechkin play he is really making a name for himself as a dirty player. All of North America saw his knee-on-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar is last year’s second round playoff series, and now Ovechkin has served a suspension for doing the same thing to Hurricane defensemen Tim Gleason (Ovechkin also sustained an injury on that same play). There are some other questionable plays on Ovechkin’s record and if they continue to build up it will taint his image. No other player in the league can impact the game any more than Ovechkin can with his incredible offensive presence but hockey is a game of honor and if Ovechkin continues his dirty play he will have to answer to some pretty tough guys who will not go quietly. So if I’m Caps coach Bruce Boudreau I am making it clear to Ovechkin that has to keep better control of himself and stop with the dirty play for otherwise the Caps championship aspirations will be in serious jeopardy.
3. The Carolina Hurricanes got their first road win of the season in 14 tries by defeating the defending champion Penguins. Why the Hurricanes are so bad is a headscratcher but a sarcastic congratulations from me to them on their first road victory of the year. Here’s to many more road wins… or at least one more anyway.
4. Despite having recently lost two-in-a-row the Buffalo Sabres are quietly having a very successful season led by the incredible play of Ryan Miller. Anytime your netminder is posting an incredible 1.90 GAA you’re more than likely going to win a lot of games. But despite such great numbers Miller cannot go it alone and thus far he certainly is not. Tim Connolly and Derek Roy are leading the way with 21 points (6 goals 15 assists for each) with wingers Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek not far behind with 19 and 18 points respectively. Buffalo is not a flashy team but they are very consistent and find themselves ahead on the scoreboard come the end of the game and that’s all that matters. Their power play is less than stellar putting them 21st “best” in the league but they counter it with a penalty kill that is 3rd best in the league and that is very important/impressive—it also helps that the Sabres stay out of the penalty box. The Sabres were very good last year before being crushed by injuries in the stretch run but so far this team is better than last year’s and if they keep this up the East needs to be on notice because fore you know it you’ll be shaking the hands of the Sabres and wishing them good luck in the next round.
There’s much more to talk about but it will have to wait for next time…
P.S. To everyone making comments, thank you so much and please continue to do so. Many of them have not been posted to the site (as you may have noticed) but I do not have control when those are posted so please keep the comments coming for they will be posted shortly. Thanks everyone.
It was a good news-bad news weekend for the Buffalo Sabres as the stretch-run approaches. The Good news is that Buffalo got three out of a possible four points including a win over seemingly playoff bound Montreal. The bad news is that they lost Thomas Vanek who is the team leader in goals, overall points, and in the locker room. Vanek will be out for a month after a slapshot hit him in the face fracturing his jaw. What this means for Buffalo is that the likes of Roy and Pominville will have to pick up the slack in Vanek’s absence. It also means the Sabres will need Tim Connolly to make his presence felt even sooner than was once thought as he returns from an injury that kept him sidelined for most of the season. Perhaps most important in all this is the already heavy load on Ryan Miller will get even heavier and it may be too much to ask of a goalie who has posted amazing numbers for a team that is only in seventh position. The Sabres certainly cannot replace Vanek’s 52 points—32 of which are in the form of goals—but what they can do is try to take some of the pressure off of Miller and have a little more faith in Patrick Lalime. Granted, Lalime’s numbers aren’t good and neither is his record but if the team can tighten up and take pressure off of Lalime when he plays–giving Miller even one extra day of rest–it can make a world a difference. Bottom line, if Lalime cannot relieve Miller he may wear down and it can cause the Sabres to miss the playoffs; or even if they make it Miller won’t be able to get them out of round one. However, if Miller is kept rested and the Sabres make the playoffs it greatly increases their chances of success and in that way Vanek’s injury could be a blessing in disguise but they have to play their cards right.
The Montreal Canadiens’ woes continued Friday night losing 3-2 to the all-of-a-sudden surging Buffalo Sabres. Although they only gave up three goals they need much more from Carey Price now that Robert Lang is out for the remainder of the season. Price should not have to carry so much of the burden but if nobody steps up to fill the scoring void created by Lang’s absence Price will have to do it and based on his performance as of late he does not appear to be up to the Challenge. In reality the pressure should be more on Alexi Kovalev who is having a solid season with 36 points but has got to contribute more than 13 goals after posting 35 last year. Granted, there are other players who need to step their game up as well but they look to Kovalev as their leader and if he does not do the job then the rest of the team will suffer. They are still 4th in the conference but with a record of 2-6 in their last eight and a six game road trip starting next week Montreal is in serious trouble of a disastrous free-fall.
The flip side of Friday’s match-up, the Buffalo Sabres , are getting healthy and getting poised to roar into the playoffs. Thomas Vanek continues his tear through the 2008-09 season with 52 points including 32 goals. Roy, Pominville, Stafford, and Kotalik (among others) are also posting great numbers which combined with the spark Tim Connoly has provided makes for a very scary team should they make the playoffs. Despite the scoring the Sabres MVP is easily Ryan Miller who is having another spectacular season. In the end however it the Sabres are asking too much of Miller and I think he’ll wear down keeping them out of the playoffs.
Unlike the West, the Eastern Conference is a much tighter race top to bottom with the exception of the Boston Bruins who have all but officially secured the top spot as they are 12 points ahead of their closets challenger. But looking beyond Boston a very colorful picture is painted as Washington and New Jersey battle for the second spot separated by only one point and the difference between 4th and 10th spot is only 9 points (essentially 3 games). That’s right ladies and gentlemen the difference between home ice advantage in the first round and being out of the playoffs altogether is merely 3 games. So you may be asking yourself how all this will end up, who’s in and who’s out? Well look no further folks, we’ve got it broken down for you right here.
Washington – The Alexes (Ovechkin and Semin) provide the Caps with enough scoring to hang with anybody from either conference and at any level of the playoffs. Supplement that with great defensive play by guys like Mike Green, outstanding goaltending by Jose Theodore and the toughness of the likes of Donald Brashear needed to wear teams down in the playoffs, you’ve got a team that can go a LONG way.
New Jersey – No Brodeur? No problem. Scott Clemmensen has been great, Parise, and Elias combine skill with leadership, and of course New Jersey always plays amazing defense. Add in Brendan Shanahan as the proverbial cherry on top and you’ve got yourself an irresistible sundae—i.e. a team that can rely on its core not only to get to the playoffs, but deep into the second season.
Montreal – Sure they lost Robert Lang for the season (a major blow indeed since he led the team in goals scored overall and power play goals) but now Kovalev and Price and company need to step up their play. They were picked by many (yours truly included) to represent the East in the finals and you better believe they’ll be there.
NY Rangers – Everything they expected to get from Wade Redden but haven’t has been more than adequately made up for by the play of Henrik Lundqvist. However, his play can only get them to the playoffs so do not expect them to get very far. A lot of their games have been won in shootouts and in case you didn’t get that memo there aren’t any shootouts in the post-season. Scott Gomez is great too but they miss Jagr and Shanahan so enjoy the Rangers while they last because it won’t be long for them in the playoffs.
Philadelphia – They are huge and can score. Big teams who can score make it to the playoffs, and as long as Biron stays solid they will be in excellent shape.
Florida – Netminder Craig Anderson has been fantastic and somehow this team has learned how to score on a more consistent basis. They have a lot of guys who are overachieving and it doesn’t look like that will stop anytime soon; however, as Anderson goes so go the Florida Panthers. In my estimation a 2.47 GAA and .930 save percentage are no accident, the Panthers are for real.
Pittsburgh – They have not played well as of late and have a lot of injuries to boot. Despite all that the Penguins have an incredible amount of talent and are becoming a grittier team as they realize they cannot win on talent alone. Losing Malone, Laraque and Hossa (among others) has hurt them more than most realize but regardless the team refuses to quit and their new 1-2-2 trap will help them win enough games to make reservations for post-season play.
Carolina – Cam Ward has been too inconsistent and the Hurricanes don’t score enough goals to bail him out every night.
Buffalo – They run Ryan Miller into the ground and he will start to wear down before the playoffs arrive. Thomas Vanek and company can certainly put the puck in the net and that will help their push toward the playoffs but they will fall short by “that much.”